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Thread: About Oscar Wilde's poetry 'The Sphinx'

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    About Oscar Wilde's poetry 'The Sphinx'

    Hi...
    I want to ask a few might-sound-shallow question about Oscar Wilde's poetry 'The Sphinx'...
    I came across that poetry while reading and I found that (I realize that this might sound both ridiculous and pathetic or even shallow and stupid) there are some things that I don't understand in that poetry.
    1. The 'I' character in the poetry, I found him a little bit confusing and somehow ridiculous. Why would he speak to the sphinx so admiringly only to push her away in the end? Why would he do that in the first place, anyway? Was it just because the loathsome mystery, the hideous animal wouldn't answer his questions and keep 'tarrying'? Was his reason that simple, or was there another really significant not-so-simple reason that my simple mind overlooked? (See, my question's shallow, right? Well, what would you expect from a newbie?)
    2. Who's Marcel Schwob to whom Oscar Wilde dedicated this poetry?
    3. In the line 'Only one God has ever died. Only one God has ever let His side be wounded by a soldier's spear'. Is it true that Oscar Wilde's referring to Jesus Christ?
    Well, I think that's all...
    [FONT=Palatino Linotype][COLOR=RoyalBlue][SIZE=4]

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    Don't waste time with Wilde's verse, only portions of Reading Gaol are readable, and the rest is tawdry and baroque, about 50 years behind its time.

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    Registered User Sebas. Melmoth's Avatar
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    Jerome Buckley has more recently written of The Sphinx, “It remains a prime example of many aspects of the English literary Decadence, an extravagant example in both style and subject matter of the ornate become outré, the esoteric entering the forbidden, the luxurious growing lascivious” (27).
    And so we come to the text of The Sphinx. The poem starts out well and interestingly:
    In a dim corner of my room
    for longer than my fancy thinks
    A beautiful and silent Sphinx
    has watched me through the shifting gloom.
    (lines 1-2)
    As Isobel Murray points out in “Problems,” Wilde did not indicate the numeration of the sections of The Sphinx as he did with The Ballad of Reading Gaol (73); she had to make editorial decisions based upon a couple of partial MSS and the 1894 publication. In her edition of Wilde’s Complete Poetry, The Sphinx consists of 174 lines, paired into 87 couplets and subdivided into 13 sections. The appearance of the text on the printed page accounts for part of the poem’s interest: unusually long lines of perfect music--rhythm and rhyme--which Ellmann notes, “suggest[s] the unfolding of a ceaseless sinister scroll” (222). Critics since Henley see the scansion of The Sphinx as a doubled form of the iambic quatrameter of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (Henley 168; Unsigned 170; Ellmann 222; Ericksen 46). They similarly note the parallels with Poe’s “The Raven,” in the scenario of a solitary sitter in a civilized room, whose “sad fancy” was beguiled by an eerie creature, as “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer,” etc. (“City” 165; Ellmann 222; Ericksen 44).
    The crux of The Sphinx was clear to contemporaneous critics: that after introductory measures the main action of the poem consists of the interlocutor quizzing the sphinx about her sex life. Henley says, “he trots her out upon his hearth-rug, and after divers compliments, and a passing invitation to sing to him, he falls to cross-examining her, with great strictness and particularity, on the matter of her sexual experiences” (169). The unsigned reviewer of the Athenaeum notes, “The whole poem [. . .] is a catalogue (put in the form of questions) of the Sphinx’s amours, which [. . .] would appear to have been ‘frequent and free’” (170). Gagnier shrewdly asserts, “it is a very funny and very sexy piece: it should be read among friends” (45). Barbara Charlesworth more seriously says,
    Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” and the play Salomé are both marred by qualities which resemble those of Dorian Gray’s reveries. Both are sexual fantasies which dwell on the morbid and even the depraved, but although the subject matter itself can partially account for the atmosphere of decay which pervades them, it is its manner of presentation which throws around these works an even more lurid, phosphorescent light. (388)
    She is perhaps inflecting what Baudelaire called “the phosphorescence of putrescence” (qtd. in Tuchman 319)--this quintessence of overripe decadence. Phew! Patricia Behrendt observes,
    In the poem, Wilde reverses the traditional association of the Sphinx with Oedipus, to whom she presents the riddle. Instead, Wilde’s narrator questions the Sphinx about the history of her love life while she remains entirely silent, reinforcing our impression of the self-absorption of Wilde’s narrators in their own thought processes and conclusions. (60)
    In a cultural historical context, Behrendt notes, “The sphinx was a popular image in the Victorian decorative arts, and it is likely that Wilde’s sphinx was inspired by a statuette, a bookend, a table leg, or even a museum reproduction” (59). Buckley writes, “The sphinx, which prompts the young man’s bizarre fantasies, appears as an age-old artifact, the product of an excessive civilization, summing up the burden of centuries, much as Pater’s Mona Lisa seems the aggregate of all past experience and so becomes ‘the symbol of the modern idea’” (27). In an essay on Poe with which Wilde surely was familiar, Baudelaire mentions “sphinxes without a riddle” (188). Wilde was speaking of Wainewright, but he could have been thinking of himself when he writes, “Like Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats, and with Gautier, he was fascinated by that ‘sweet marble monster,’ of both sexes [i.e., the sphinx] that we can see at Florence and in the Louvre” (“Pen” 996). Baudelaire included three wonderful “cat” poems in Les Fleurs de Mal (nos. 34, 51 & 66), and these Murray cites as seminal influences--amongst many--upon Wilde’s The Sphinx (“Problems” 77). Other sources include Gautier’s Émaux et Camées and Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Falubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine--all especial favorites of Wilde. In her introduction to Saint Antony, Kitty Mrosovsky speaks of Flaubert, but her critique is equally applicable to Wilde:
    [he] had always been very keen on monsters. He felt in them a real power reaching back to the mystery of origins. Here again is the belief in the truth of illusion. (46)
    In The Sphinx Wilde urges upon the reader bizarre imagery of “monsters breeding more monstrous monsters” (Murray “Problems” 79)--“grotesque in its erotic drive [the poem is] a phantasmagorical catalogue of the monster’s lovers” (Buckley 27).
    After the interesting introduction (lines 1-18), the poem quickly devolves into nonsense poetry of the purest verbal music of rhythm and rhyme--“intriguing nonsense” (Murray “Problems” 75). Here (lines 19-120) Wilde is concerned with fantastic imagery rather than historical or even mythological accuracy: “A great poet sings because he chooses to sing,” he had said ( “Critic” 70). However, from line 121 to the end of the poem (line 174) the story begun in lines 1-18 is dramatically resumed: a climax is achieved in lines 167-68 when the narrator decries of the Sphinx,
    Get hence, you loathsome Mystery!
    Hideous animal, get hence!
    You wake in me each bestial sense,
    you make me what I would not be.
    The student who had lost himself in erotic fantasies regains his moral sense and retreats to a position which might be considered Roman Catholic. Behrendt notes,
    The Sphinx’s significant silence reveals that the narrator’s elaborate fantasies about the creature’s bizarre sexual adventures are the products of his own mind, which imagines them. The narrator’s unanswered questions, which reveal his prurient interests in her complex sexuality, lead to a self-disgust with his own lubricious imagination.
    Wilde’s poem [. . .] achieves its drama by bringing pagan and Christian imagery into juxtaposition and by blurring ideological boundaries. (60-61)
    Ericksen notes that the sphinx “is Wilde’s symbol for the evil in the world, through its beauty as well as its ugliness, its fascination as well as its repulsion [. . . .] For this reason Wilde balances its power against that of Christianity, thus expressing the eternal struggle between these forces” (46). The narrator asks,
    What songless tongueless ghost of Sin
    crept through the curtains of the night,
    And saw my taper burning bright,
    and knocked, and bade you enter in?
    (lines 162-64)
    Some critics have regarded “Wilde’s return to the crucifix as a weak ending which destroys the decadent ecstasy and prevents the poem from rivaling similar works in French decadent literature” (Behrendt 61). This is a misreading of the poem. Firstly, the crucifix and Romanism are part of the agony and ecstasy of the decadent ethos and imagination. Secondly, such a critique entirely misses the story line, where the modern, solitary, pensive and thoughtful young man at twilight in his civilized chamber slides into and then revels in degenerate erotic fantasies; and then, disgusted at his own depravity, he returns to a faith that, while imperfect in him, offers a sublimity greater than himself and the world. Behrendt concedes, “The ending does seem to trivialize the narrator’s internal dialogue, reducing it to a choice between the sensual life and the spiritual life, with the narrator finally opting for the latter” (61). She then launches into an excellent gender critique in which homo- and hetero-erotic tensions are juxtaposed in Wilde’s poem with the narrator’s anxiety concerning his own nature in relation that of the female sphinx and the male Savior: this is closer to the mark.
    Wilde’s decadent symbolist poem incorporates exquisite word music of splendid rhythm and rhyme:
    See, the dawn shivers round the grey
    gilt-dialled towers, and the rain
    Streams down each diamonded pane
    and blurs with tears the wannish day.
    (lines 159-60)
    It tells a story of a young philosopher who is cognizant of sin in the world--intensely aware of its fascination--yet unwilling to be dominated by it. As a late-Victorian literary artifact, The Sphinx is unrivaled: a quintessential piece of fin-de-siècle art. The poem holds a unique position within Wilde’s oeuvre wherein the poet sings,
    leave me to my Crucifix,
    Whose pallid burden, sick with pain,
    watches the world with wearied eyes,
    And weeps for every soul that dies,
    and weeps for every soul in vain.
    (lines 172-74)
    Last edited by Sebas. Melmoth; 05-16-2010 at 12:50 PM.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by emveedub View Post
    Don't waste time with Wilde's verse, only portions of Reading Gaol are readable, and the rest is tawdry and baroque, about 50 years behind its time.
    There's certainly something in what you say. Wilde's early poetry is pretty weak to be fair, though it must be taken into account that much of it was written around the time when Wilde was still at Oxford and Wilde's strength clearly developed over time. I don't think that Wilde couldn't write poetry, I think the "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is a testament to that, and he was all but totally broken at this time, no, I solely put the weakness of these poems down to Wilde's inexperience at the time of writing. I would probably say that poetry was not his natural form sure, rather drama or operating as a raconteur was, but even so if given the opportunity or means to write in the early nineties I bet that he could have produced something of merit in this form.

    However on the positive side there are still many reasons for reading his poetry. Naturally as a Wildean his poetry is of great interest to me regardless of particular merit, though for the general reader there are still one or two flashes here and there that are of some value. Try for example "Requiesat," Impression Du Matin," "In The Gold Room - A Harmony," The Sphinx (see above)" and perhaps bits of "The Garden of Eros" amongst others. Also his poem "Ravenna" won Wilde the Newdigate prize which has some prestige to it at least.

    There is also the argument that the ridiculous reaction that Wilde had to endure when his poems were rejected by his university library has caused Wilde's early poetry to be automatically dismissed. As I say I'm not saying that his early poetry is strong by any means, but at the same time I think that it shouldn't be completely forgotten.
    Last edited by LitNetIsGreat; 05-18-2010 at 04:22 PM.

  5. #5
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    I'm no expert on poetry, but I like a few of Wilde's poems. But poetry was not really his genre of expertise, to be fair.

    Quote Originally Posted by Neely View Post
    Try for example "Requiesat," Impression Du Matin," "In The Gold Room - A Harmony,"
    Neely, you've named a few of my favorites, especially "Requiescat". I'm also like to "The Harlot's House"...it has quite a nice rhythm and a glimpse of Wilde's signature overwrought descriptions. But perhaps my favorite is "The Dole of the King's Daughter" because of its medieval material (though I've never figured out which romance he's referring to...anybody?) and its slightly Celtic feel.
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  6. #6
    Registered User Sebas. Melmoth's Avatar
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    Wilde's book of poems sold well at the time, running through several editions.
    Some of the poems are fairly long, and these don't play well today; however it should be remembered that epic poetry was a vital genre in the 19th Century when the novel was becoming established: in other words, at that time people read long poems in lieu of (or in tandem with) novels.
    (People 'had' more time back then! Thinking of Byron, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, et alii.)

    Admittedly, much of Wilde's poetry is not of metaphysical depth, but rather verbal music of mere imagery: but this was also typical of much poetry of the era--especially in the Decadent and Symbolist vein.

    Wilde's poetry has strict meter and nearly always rhymes: he disapproved of 'free' poetry.
    But then, his prose is very cadential and musical, and he actually preferred the genre of 'prose-poem' which Baudelaire had advocated.
    Most of Wilde's non-theatrical work he considered 'prose-poetry' in any case.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sebas. Melmoth View Post
    Jerome Buckley has more recently written of The Sphinx, “It remains a prime example of many aspects of the English literary Decadence, an extravagant example in both style and subject matter of the ornate become outré, the esoteric entering the forbidden, the luxurious growing lascivious” (27).
    And so we come to the text of The Sphinx. The poem starts out well and interestingly:
    In a dim corner of my room
    for longer than my fancy thinks
    A beautiful and silent Sphinx
    has watched me through the shifting gloom.
    (lines 1-2)
    As Isobel Murray points out in “Problems,” Wilde did not indicate the numeration of the sections of The Sphinx as he did with The Ballad of Reading Gaol (73); she had to make editorial decisions based upon a couple of partial MSS and the 1894 publication. In her edition of Wilde’s Complete Poetry, The Sphinx consists of 174 lines, paired into 87 couplets and subdivided into 13 sections. The appearance of the text on the printed page accounts for part of the poem’s interest: unusually long lines of perfect music--rhythm and rhyme--which Ellmann notes, “suggest[s] the unfolding of a ceaseless sinister scroll” (222). Critics since Henley see the scansion of The Sphinx as a doubled form of the iambic quatrameter of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (Henley 168; Unsigned 170; Ellmann 222; Ericksen 46). They similarly note the parallels with Poe’s “The Raven,” in the scenario of a solitary sitter in a civilized room, whose “sad fancy” was beguiled by an eerie creature, as “the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer,” etc. (“City” 165; Ellmann 222; Ericksen 44).
    The crux of The Sphinx was clear to contemporaneous critics: that after introductory measures the main action of the poem consists of the interlocutor quizzing the sphinx about her sex life. Henley says, “he trots her out upon his hearth-rug, and after divers compliments, and a passing invitation to sing to him, he falls to cross-examining her, with great strictness and particularity, on the matter of her sexual experiences” (169). The unsigned reviewer of the Athenaeum notes, “The whole poem [. . .] is a catalogue (put in the form of questions) of the Sphinx’s amours, which [. . .] would appear to have been ‘frequent and free’” (170). Gagnier shrewdly asserts, “it is a very funny and very sexy piece: it should be read among friends” (45). Barbara Charlesworth more seriously says,
    Wilde’s poem “The Sphinx” and the play Salomé are both marred by qualities which resemble those of Dorian Gray’s reveries. Both are sexual fantasies which dwell on the morbid and even the depraved, but although the subject matter itself can partially account for the atmosphere of decay which pervades them, it is its manner of presentation which throws around these works an even more lurid, phosphorescent light. (388)
    She is perhaps inflecting what Baudelaire called “the phosphorescence of putrescence” (qtd. in Tuchman 319)--this quintessence of overripe decadence. Phew! Patricia Behrendt observes,
    In the poem, Wilde reverses the traditional association of the Sphinx with Oedipus, to whom she presents the riddle. Instead, Wilde’s narrator questions the Sphinx about the history of her love life while she remains entirely silent, reinforcing our impression of the self-absorption of Wilde’s narrators in their own thought processes and conclusions. (60)
    In a cultural historical context, Behrendt notes, “The sphinx was a popular image in the Victorian decorative arts, and it is likely that Wilde’s sphinx was inspired by a statuette, a bookend, a table leg, or even a museum reproduction” (59). Buckley writes, “The sphinx, which prompts the young man’s bizarre fantasies, appears as an age-old artifact, the product of an excessive civilization, summing up the burden of centuries, much as Pater’s Mona Lisa seems the aggregate of all past experience and so becomes ‘the symbol of the modern idea’” (27). In an essay on Poe with which Wilde surely was familiar, Baudelaire mentions “sphinxes without a riddle” (188). Wilde was speaking of Wainewright, but he could have been thinking of himself when he writes, “Like Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats, and with Gautier, he was fascinated by that ‘sweet marble monster,’ of both sexes [i.e., the sphinx] that we can see at Florence and in the Louvre” (“Pen” 996). Baudelaire included three wonderful “cat” poems in Les Fleurs de Mal (nos. 34, 51 & 66), and these Murray cites as seminal influences--amongst many--upon Wilde’s The Sphinx (“Problems” 77). Other sources include Gautier’s Émaux et Camées and Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Falubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine--all especial favorites of Wilde. In her introduction to Saint Antony, Kitty Mrosovsky speaks of Flaubert, but her critique is equally applicable to Wilde:
    [he] had always been very keen on monsters. He felt in them a real power reaching back to the mystery of origins. Here again is the belief in the truth of illusion. (46)
    In The Sphinx Wilde urges upon the reader bizarre imagery of “monsters breeding more monstrous monsters” (Murray “Problems” 79)--“grotesque in its erotic drive [the poem is] a phantasmagorical catalogue of the monster’s lovers” (Buckley 27).
    After the interesting introduction (lines 1-18), the poem quickly devolves into nonsense poetry of the purest verbal music of rhythm and rhyme--“intriguing nonsense” (Murray “Problems” 75). Here (lines 19-120) Wilde is concerned with fantastic imagery rather than historical or even mythological accuracy: “A great poet sings because he chooses to sing,” he had said ( “Critic” 70). However, from line 121 to the end of the poem (line 174) the story begun in lines 1-18 is dramatically resumed: a climax is achieved in lines 167-68 when the narrator decries of the Sphinx,
    Get hence, you loathsome Mystery!
    Hideous animal, get hence!
    You wake in me each bestial sense,
    you make me what I would not be.
    The student who had lost himself in erotic fantasies regains his moral sense and retreats to a position which might be considered Roman Catholic. Behrendt notes,
    The Sphinx’s significant silence reveals that the narrator’s elaborate fantasies about the creature’s bizarre sexual adventures are the products of his own mind, which imagines them. The narrator’s unanswered questions, which reveal his prurient interests in her complex sexuality, lead to a self-disgust with his own lubricious imagination.
    Wilde’s poem [. . .] achieves its drama by bringing pagan and Christian imagery into juxtaposition and by blurring ideological boundaries. (60-61)
    Ericksen notes that the sphinx “is Wilde’s symbol for the evil in the world, through its beauty as well as its ugliness, its fascination as well as its repulsion [. . . .] For this reason Wilde balances its power against that of Christianity, thus expressing the eternal struggle between these forces” (46). The narrator asks,
    What songless tongueless ghost of Sin
    crept through the curtains of the night,
    And saw my taper burning bright,
    and knocked, and bade you enter in?
    (lines 162-64)
    Some critics have regarded “Wilde’s return to the crucifix as a weak ending which destroys the decadent ecstasy and prevents the poem from rivaling similar works in French decadent literature” (Behrendt 61). This is a misreading of the poem. Firstly, the crucifix and Romanism are part of the agony and ecstasy of the decadent ethos and imagination. Secondly, such a critique entirely misses the story line, where the modern, solitary, pensive and thoughtful young man at twilight in his civilized chamber slides into and then revels in degenerate erotic fantasies; and then, disgusted at his own depravity, he returns to a faith that, while imperfect in him, offers a sublimity greater than himself and the world. Behrendt concedes, “The ending does seem to trivialize the narrator’s internal dialogue, reducing it to a choice between the sensual life and the spiritual life, with the narrator finally opting for the latter” (61). She then launches into an excellent gender critique in which homo- and hetero-erotic tensions are juxtaposed in Wilde’s poem with the narrator’s anxiety concerning his own nature in relation that of the female sphinx and the male Savior: this is closer to the mark.
    Wilde’s decadent symbolist poem incorporates exquisite word music of splendid rhythm and rhyme:
    See, the dawn shivers round the grey
    gilt-dialled towers, and the rain
    Streams down each diamonded pane
    and blurs with tears the wannish day.
    (lines 159-60)
    It tells a story of a young philosopher who is cognizant of sin in the world--intensely aware of its fascination--yet unwilling to be dominated by it. As a late-Victorian literary artifact, The Sphinx is unrivaled: a quintessential piece of fin-de-siècle art. The poem holds a unique position within Wilde’s oeuvre wherein the poet sings,
    leave me to my Crucifix,
    Whose pallid burden, sick with pain,
    watches the world with wearied eyes,
    And weeps for every soul that dies,
    and weeps for every soul in vain.
    (lines 172-74)
    Would you mind sending me the whole papers?

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    In regards to your quote below, could you kindly tell me from which book of Ericksen it was taken from?
    Thank you so much. I look forward to your reply.

    Ericksen notes that the sphinx “is Wilde’s symbol for the evil in the world, through its beauty as well as its ugliness, its fascination as well as its repulsion [. . . .] For this reason Wilde balances its power against that of Christianity, thus expressing the eternal struggle between these forces” (46).

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